By Jason B. Hirschhorn
The Rams were eliminated from postseason contention in rather inglorious fashion Thursday, losing to the Cardinals 12-6. The Shaun Hill-quarterbacked offense reached the red zone just two times, resulting in six total points. Such is just the latest example of offensive stagnation for St. Louis, which has failed to score at least 20 points seven times this season.
This will now be the 10th consecutive year without playoff football in St. Louis.
Yet there's still hope now that the Rams have built a talented young nucleus. The defensive front four, composed entirely of first round investments such as Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald, creates consistent pressure without the aid of additional blitzers. The skill positions are manned by explosive playmakers like Tavon Austin and Tre Mason. St. Louis remains in search of a franchise quarterback, but the surrounding pieces for a contender are all present.
Though their overall record may not suggest it, the Rams trajectory places them squarely in the playoff hunt a year from now. For supporting evidence, one only has to look within their own division.
In 2011, the Seattle Seahawks lost six of their first eight games, a stretch in which they were outscored by a combined 185-122. Yet behind the dismal win-loss record, the Seahawks' defense made meaningful strides late in the year. The safety tandem of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor emerged for the first time as an elite pairing, combining for nine takeaways and limiting quarterbacks to a passer rating of 72.4 when throwing in their direction. Development was also taking place on the boundaries where plus size first-year corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner learned how to beat down receivers within the confines of the rulebook.
The defense held opponents to just 16.3 points per game over the final eight weeks, winning five of those tilts while never losing by as much as a touchdown. Though few realized it at the time, that run provided the first look at the now ubiquitous "Legion of Boom" secondary that powered the Seahawks to a championship only two years later.
In a similar manner, the Rams' inability to light up a scoreboard has obscured what has quietly become one of the league's most dominant defenses. Over the past five weeks, nearly a third of the season, St. Louis has held opponents to an astonishingly low 7.4 points per game. Two of those games were shutouts, an impressive feat considering there have been only six total in the NFL this season. Even in Thursday's loss to the Cardinals, the Rams allowed just 12 points.
The catalyst for the turnaround has been the pass rush of St. Louis' defensive line. Starting with their 22-7 upset of the Denver Broncos in Week 11, the group (including starters and reserves) has amassed 15.5 sacks, over 80 percent of the team's total during that stretch. The line also accounted for 66 of the Rams' 87 total pressures as measured by Pro Football Focus.
Why have the pass rushing figures skewed so heavily towards the linemen? Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has limited the number of blitzers, favoring instead dropping more players back into coverage to tighten the passing windows. Because the defensive line has pressured the quarterback so consistently on its own, the Rams have yielded an average of just 256.2 passing yards in their last five games. Only Peyton Manning managed to eclipse 300 yards. That defensive production is made all the most impressive considering starting left end Chris Long didn't come off of short-term injured reserve until Week 13.
Because of the front four, the upside of St. Louis' defense is tremendous. Weakside linebacker Alec Ogletree has the freedom to take more risks in the open field and in coverage as his career high two interceptions attest. The situations where the secondary, easily the weakest level of the defense, has to cover receivers for three or more seconds have become increasingly rare. It's a noticeable change from the first half of the season when the defense allowed 30 or more points six times.
The Rams offense remains a work in progress, but it's not for a lack of talent. The often-conservative Brian Schottenheimer has started to implement his dynamic weapons in untraditional ways. Steadman Bailey received his first carry of the season Thursday, a wide receiver reverse netting 13 yards. Austin's role as runner has also increased of late with nearly two thirds of his rushing yards coming since Week 10. After some early frustrations, Mason has taken the lead role in St. Louis' ground attack. More importantly, the offensive line is beginning to show signs of long-term stability. The same five starting linemen from Thursday's game against the Cardinals have started every game from Week 9 onward. The more continuity that can be built along the offensive line, the better it should perform in the future.
And while that sets up nicely for the Rams in 2015, the biggest advantage may come from their NFC West opponents. While the Seahawks show no signs for significant regression next year, the same cannot be said for the rest of the division.
Arizona has won 11 games largely due to its defense, a unit expertly commanded by coordinator Todd Bowles. Even with most of his best front seven players missing some or all of the season, Bowles has manufactured a reliable pass rush through an aggressive approach to blitzing. His work product has been so impressive that he should garner serious consideration for a head coaching position elsewhere. If he leaves, the Cardinals' defense will be negatively affected much in the same way Cincinnati's was after Mike Zimmer's departure.
In San Francisco, it's unclear whether any of the major cogs will be a part of the 49ers next year. The anticipation for Jim Harbaugh's departure has only grown since reports surfaced that the team attempted to trade him to the Cleveland Browns last offseason. The 49ers recent downturn only increases the chances that the mercurial head coach will be flaunting his Walmart khakis somewhere else in 2015. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed a long-term extension before the season, but his performance since then has triggered speculation that he may not survive long enough to see the fruits. The deal's structure allows San Francisco to release Kaepernick without incurring an overwhelming cap hit. The next coach may prefer to choose his own signal caller. If that happens, the overall turnover may be too great for the 49ers to compete next year.
If both Arizona and San Francisco backslide in 2015, the Rams could step into the fray and compete for a playoff. Their defense already keeps them competitive with the league's top teams, and the offense requires only a few additional pieces to take off. Granted, one of those needed parts is a quarterback, but St. Louis will have another chance to locate one this offseason. They don't need to uncover the next Russell Wilson. Rather, consistent league-average play or better at the position could send them into the postseason. Should they find it, no one will want to see the Rams on their schedule next season.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth and covers the NFL for SB Nation and the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. Follow him on Twitter at @jbhirschhorn.